Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Shifting to www.qunfuz.com

I am posting new articles and most of the old stuff on this blog over at www.qunfuz.com Please join me there.

The Green Still Resists

In one of the most contentious sections of his thoroughly contentious Cairo speech, Obama declared: “Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed. For centuries, black people in America suffered the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation. But it was not violence that won full and equal rights. It was a peaceful and determined insistence upon the ideals at the center of America’s founding. This same story can be told by people from South Africa to South Asia; from Eastern Europe to Indonesia. It’s a story with a simple truth: that violence is a dead end. It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Perhaps by registering just how insulting it is for the representative of the imperial killing machine – responsible directly and indirectly for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia – to lecture the dispossessed and massacred Palestinians on their occasional attempts to strike back. We can be sure that the sleeping children Obama is concerned with here are the Israeli children who live on the stolen land of Palestine, not the unsleeping, traumatised children of Gaza, several hundred of whom were burnt and dismembered six months ago. Then it’s worth remarking how the erudition and intelligence shown in Obama’s pre-presidential book 'Dreams from my Father' have been immediately crushed on his assumption of the presidency. How otherwise could his historical vision be so partial and simplistic? There was certainly a key non-violent aspect to the struggle for civil rights in the United States, but pretending that violence played no role in the process makes it necessary to ignore the American Civil War (half a million dead), Nat Turner, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers and rioting Chicago. Violence, or the threat of violence, was important in South Africa and India too, and certainly in Obama’s ancestral Kenya, and was the dominant anti-imperial strategy in Vietnam and Algeria.

In the Palestinian context, it is essential to emphasise once again that while Palestinians have a right to violent resistance, most resistance to the extreme violence of Zionism has been, and continues to be, non-violent. A small minority of Palestinians fight in the militias, but most Palestinians have participated in tax strikes, unarmed demonstrations, non-cooperation with Israeli bureaucracy, and similar actions. Penned in with US-made and granted weaponry, and ignored by the Western media, these tactics have not yet done the Palestinians any good.

Yet the act of resisting, when it becomes a habit, makes the actor stronger than he was before, and changes him, so that each of his acts becomes infused with resistance. The great Palestinian thinker Edward Said said, “Culture is a way of fighting extinction and obliteration.” For 61 years Palestinians have engaged in cultural resistance, in the widest sense. This means farmers continuing to farm even when their trees are slated for uprooting. It means couples building a house of their own even when they know it will be bulldozed. It means giving birth to children even though it is forbidden to dream of their future. It explains why Palestinian children in Damascus, Dubai and San Diego still speak Arabic in the Palestinian dialect, and in the accent of a village not even their parents have seen.

Students resist by studying. Palestinians are among the world’s best educated people, despite the school closures and curfews, the bombs and enforced poverty. Raja Shehadeh resists by walking in the hills, which themselves seem to rise up against the weight of settlements and military roads. Mourid Barghouti writes in “I Saw Ramallah”: “There is less green now. Israel has been stealing the water since 1967, but even so the green still resists.”

Most persistently, Palestinians resist by remembering. The refugee camp alleyways are named after the raped villages their inhabitants fled. Refugee families keep the keys to their homes on hooks or framed in their temporary shelters. A giant key hangs over the entrance to the Aida camp in Bethlehem, and many Palestinians are named Ayid (Returner), or Jaffra or Falasteen (both mean Palestine), or Bisan (a city in Palestine). Perhaps the most characteristic Palestinian name is Sumood, which means endurance and remaining.

A common motif of Palestinian art is an olive tree wreathed in barbed wire. Another is the crucified Christ (Jesus is surely the most famous Palestinian of all, even if the American Christians haven’t worked it out). Hanzala, assassinated Naji al-Ali’s cartoon creation – eternally eight years old because that was Naji’s age when he was driven from his home, and always with his back to the world because the world has turned its back on Palestine – stands on almost every wall. The body of Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s ‘national poet’ who died last summer but who is obviously not yet dead, is imprinted in the marketplace and near the checkpoint. In every cafĂ© and sitting room stories are told of the struggle and the land and the days before.

These memories are the symbols of Palestine and also Palestine’s first weapon of refusal, because the destroyers of Palestine insist on forgetfulness. This is why stones are stolen from the walls of old Jerusalem and used to build houses for Jews, to give them an air of age and authenticity. This is why archeology in Israel is a matter of military security. This is why the Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are described as ‘Arab-Israelis’, as if they’ve recently arrived from Algeria or Kuwait. It is why Zionist-compliant media never explained that the refugees in Gaza come from Ashkelon and Sderot.

Memory is related to truth and justice, and constitutes a fundamental challenge to the Zio-Disney version of the Holy Land, and to any oppressive system. Yet memory can also burn the oppressed.

The danger of memory, particularly traumatic memory, is that it freezes the rememberer in eternal retrospection. The flow of the present coagulates in him, and he dies. But the Palestinians are focused on the present moment too, on today’s existence and endurance. When their land calls to them it calls with immediacy. The refugees don’t want to return to the past; they want to return to their land today, they want their rights today.

And right now there is an explosion of Palestinian expression which more than compensates for the deaths of Darwish and Edward Said. Palestinian films are now the most sophisticated in the Arab world, and the most accessible to global audiences. Paradise Now, for instance, was shortlisted for an Oscar for best foreign film. Palestinian hip hop is powerful and distinctive and has an international fan base. A new crop of poets completely at ease with contemporary mass media include Tamim Barghouti, Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal. Politically, websites like the Palestine Chronicle and Ali Abunimah’s Electronic Intifada are signs of the beginning of an effective lobby.

It would be difficult to find a nation more alive. The Palestinians are solidifying and prospering as a nation – an imagined community – even as the earth disappears under their feet. Mourid Barghouti says, “The long Occupation has succeeded in changing us from children of Palestine to children of the idea of Palestine.”

Ideas can be more fertile even than bank accounts. Eventually, they can prove more powerful than anything. The apartheid Wall is painted with Palestinian identity, and with messages of solidarity in any language you can think of.

This changes the equation in the long term, and the equation needs to be changed. All that we can currently hope for is that Obama is as radical as Carter has become. In other words, all we can hope for is a bantustan on bits of the West Bank and Gaza. Israel will continue to be a sectarian settler state which disenfranchises its Palestinian citizens. It will continue to hold Jerusalem. Palestinian refugees will have their moral and legal right to return to their land denied.

No self-respecting people would acquiesce in this, least of all the Palestinians, with their thousands of years of history and their enormous cultural momentum.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Entering Palestine

I love it when Arab Christians have names like Omar. It shows, on their fathers’ part, a rejection of the sectarianism which cripples us. I know of a Christian family in Beirut which named its eldest son Jihad, and Muslim families with sons called Fidel and Guevara. Omar is not merely a specifically Muslim name; it’s more particularly a Sunni name, disliked by some Shia for theological-historical reasons. Omar is not a good name to have written on your ID card while driving through a Shia-militia-controlled area of Baghdad. But I know an Iraqi Shia woman whose brother is called Omar, because her father rejected the whole sorry sectarian business.

By and large, the Palestinians have avoided the curse. It’s still the case that if you ask a Palestinian whether he’s Muslim or Christian he responds, “Palestinian!” I mention this because our guide from Amman to the Allenby Bridge was a Palestinian Christian called Omar, and because the Palestinians, unlike their enemies, are proud of their diversity and pluralism.

Swaying in the bus aisle, Omar explained that Jordanian officers would check our passports but would not stamp them. “The Jordanian government has recognised Israel, but not Israeli control over the West Bank. Why are there Israeli police on the border and not Palestinians? Jordan recognises this as a crossing, but not a border.”

Surely Omar was pleased that, since the peace agreement, he could visit his family in Bethlehem? Not really: “Jordan allows every Israeli to come here. They get visas automatically when they come in. But we have to apply at the Israeli embassy, where they treat us badly, and 95% of applications are refused. I tried to go in for my uncle’s funeral, but they wouldn’t let me. This is the balanced peace we have with our neighbours.”

The Jordanian side of the crossing takes less than ten minutes. Omar collects our passports to flash at an officer while we drink water in the shade. Then back onto the bus, without Omar, and over the bridge.

On the Israeli side there are even more flags than in an Arab country, and a sign offering ten million dollars for information concerning two Israeli soldiers gone missing during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

Ten million dollars! For men missing for 27 years, who must be dead. I exclaim aloud, and Ahdaf remarks that the sign’s true purpose is to demonstrate Israel’s commitment to its people, and the money in its hands.

We give our bags to a Palestinian worker. They will be given back when we’ve been processed through the border. Past plainclothes men with sunglasses and fingers on the triggers of enormous guns (I’ve never seen guns the size of the guns I saw hanging off Israeli backs – science fiction guns, guns from the film Men in Black) and into a queue. When I reach the girl in the booth she gets on the walkie-talkie and sticks a green sticker on my passport. Another girl arrives and tells me to wait on a bench.

A couple of minutes later I’m taken into a separate room, by yet another girl, and my first questioning begins. Why are you here? Are you married? Do you have children? What are their names? Where is your father from? Have you been to Syria? When was the last time? Where will you visit in Israel? Where will you stay in Jerusalem? Why do you have a new passport? Do you have any other passports? What kind of writer are you? Do you have a weapon?

It took ten minutes. Then I was told to stand inside a machine which blows wind over your body to pick up any forgotten traces of explosive. And I was waved on.

I thought I’d done it then. But around the white-walled corner the process began in earnest. Maybe eight windows processing eight queues. Our Palfest group dominated two of them. Victoria Britain was at the front showing the British Council letter of invitation with all our names. Slowly we moved up, interspersing Arabs with Anglos, to dilute the Arabs in the consciousness of the Israelis. Jamal got through with no trouble. But Suheir was turned back. Victoria suggested I join the other queue. “That window seems more tolerant,” she said. “I’ve been comparing.” Her harsher official was a prettyish Sephardic girl. Mine was very white. Which made no difference. When my turn came I was directed to a bench which already seated a mainly Palestinian crowd, including Suheir. In total four of our group, all with Arab or Muslim names, were stopped.

I sat down to begin the wait. I wished I’d taken a book from my bag before handing it over, and perhaps a nicotine mint. If I’d been told that I had a five-hour period of stillness ahead I might have meditated. But I was in a place of noise and distress, peppered with distractors. I observed the Israelis as they flitted or slouched, expecting one of them to call my name. During this long time I was oppressed by their low-slung trousers. I mean, maybe it works for people with the right kind of buttocks, I don’t know. But I’m sure it doesn’t work for Israeli kid-soldiers.

After three hours a slight young man in short-sleeved casuals summoned me quietly to a second interview. I told him I was part of a group of writers and that I planned to do a reading in Jerusalem.

“How many editions of your novel are there?”

“Only one, I’m afraid.”

“And what is the plot?”

“You should buy it,” I grin. “If you buy it it might run into a second edition.”

His smile has gone.

“No. I was hoping for a PDF.”

The European holding me at the border of Arab Palestine wants me to send him a PDF of my novel.

I gave an inevitably partial account of the plot. He nodded, and then smiled again. “I know you’ve been waiting a while already. It’ll only be another couple of minutes.”

It took another couple of hours.

As well as playing psychology, I think they were googling us. My interviewer had suddenly asked, “Why is Suheir with you? She isn’t a writer. She’s an actress.” Suheir is an actress, most recently in Salt of this Sea, but she and her interviewer had only talked poetry. And then there was George, a neatly dressed young American of Egyptian origin. He waited from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon, when a very aggressive Israeli came at him with a document. “Sign this or you go!” she sirened. The document forbade George entry to ‘Palestinian-controlled’ areas on pain of immediate deportation and the denial of entry visas for a decade. “I can’t sign this,” he told her. Her answer was nearly a scream: “So you go back to Jordan!”

“What’s their problem with you?” I asked George. “You have an American passport and a Christian name.” “I’m a pro-Palestine activist in the States,” he explained. “They haven’t said a word about it, but I presume they looked me up.”

So the visit began with intimidation, and continued the same way. I wouldn’t say I was ever scared in Palestine, but part of my brain was constantly occupied with sizing up the occupied landscape – finding the Wall on the horizon, judging vehicles and the distance and mood of soldiers, being aware of the positions of towers and checkpoints.

It’s worse, of course, for the Palestinians. Several of them were held all day at the border, including a sad-faced woman in late middle age. The Israelis regarded her with open disdain. Her demeanour made me wonder if she had a funeral to go to. At one point she begged, and when she was finally allowed through she asked God to bless her tormentors.

Suheir was asked this question: Why did your father leave? A survey of the others on the bench established that it’s a routine question for Palestinians from the lands occupied in 1948. Of course, you won’t get through if you tell the truth: He left because he was driven out at gunpoint, because his sister was terrified of being molested, because there had been a massacre in the town, because he feared for his life. That won’t work. So for the purposes of the crossing, the correct answer is: I don’t know. He died, and I never asked. Or perhaps, He left because this place was a desert before you came; he wanted to live somewhere more civilised.

Your visit must begin with a lie.

For us internationals with our semi-official backing, it was a difficult entry, but not a forced entry. Obviously not. At the many borders the Israelis have constructed I surprised myself with my capacity for calm, good grace and repartee. I worried beforehand that I would find it impossible to remain polite, but the reality is something different. My aim was to pass, to enter, and I played my role to make the entry smooth.

And all this talk of entry, difficult and forced, reminds me of the Arabic word used to describe assaulted Palestine and its hundreds of bulldozed villages: al-mughtusiba, which means both ‘usurped’ and ‘raped’. The alleys of the Azzeh camp in Bethlehem, for instance, have wall signs announcing their names, which are the names of the villages the refugees fled. I took a photo of one which reads: Al-Menshiyeh, two kilometres north east of Akka (Acre), population 810, occupied and raped 14/5/1948.

Obama (who I will call Osama since his ‘clash of civilisations’ Cairo speech), and the proponents of normalisation, forgetting and ‘balance’, believe that peace will be achieved when raper and rapist are taught to smile into each other’s eyes. I disagree. I believe the rape should be stopped, and the Zionist borders – between Jordan and Palestine, between the villages and towns in Palestine, between 1948 Palestine and 1967 Palestine, between a farmer and his land, as well as the borders in the minds of Israeli Jews which produce these physical manifestations – should be torn down.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

From Vanunu to the New Jew

I cannot keep silent … Disaster follows disaster; the land lies in ruins … My people are fools; they do not know me.” Jeremiah 4:19

Mordechai Vanunu is a Moroccan Jew, born in Marrakesh. Today he credits his humanity to having been born in an Arab country rather than in the Jewish state. He was nine when he was taken to Israel. He attended an ultra orthodox school, and after his military service became a nuclear technician at the Dimona plant. At this time his anti-Zionist politics developed. Later he flirted with Buddhism, converted to Christianity, and in London in 1986 told the Sunday Times what he knew of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme, backing his claims with photographic evidence.

He was then caught in a ‘honey trap’, lured by a beautiful woman from London to Italy, drugged and kidnapped in Rome by Mossad (with the connivance of British, French and Italian intelligence services), and brought back to Israel, where he served 18 years in prison for his truth-telling, twelve of them in solitary confinement. He says he survived because of his strong will (“the first thing I did in prison was give up smoking”), and by playing opera records. He refused to converse with the only human beings available – his guards. His lawyer describes him as “the most stubborn, principled, and tough person I have ever met.”

Out of prison, Vanunu is still imprisoned, forbidden to leave the state he so loathes, and not allowed to meet or even email foreigners. When I and several other foreigners met him in an east Jerusalem restaurant, I asked him, “Can I say we’ve met you? Will you get in trouble?” He thrust his arm skyward in a very Moroccan way: “Yes! Yes, I will have trouble. I don’t care about trouble. Let them make trouble!”

This was the end of an incredibly emotional week. I was physically and mentally exhausted from late nights, early mornings, and the slow absorption of what I was experiencing. I’d been weeping in the streets on a couple of occasions, and I’m not a particularly weepy kind of guy. Tonight our final Palfest event, at the Palestine National Theatre, had been closed down by Israeli troops, we’d relocated to read at the British Council garden, and then we’d eaten and danced. And another early start tomorrow – but Vanunu was across the table. Like everything else during my visit to occupied Palestine, meeting Vanunu was an experience worth being awake for.

I ordered another Taybeh beer and we started talking. Before long I was sitting next to him, putting my arm around his shoulders and telling him I wished I could have held his hand during those years when he was alone.

Vanunu is a proud Christian. His discourse is unrelentingly harsh on ‘the Jewish’, for their opposition to democracy, their brutality, their lack of humanity. Gently, indirectly, I hinted he might be wrong to generalise so. I mentioned Ilan Pappe and the Neturei Karta – fine examples, secular and religious, of Jewish opposition to Zionism. Next to us was a French Jew, a very intelligent academic, who had earlier said the obvious very clearly: Zionism has to be defeated, by force if necessary.

Vanunu liked the people I mentioned, but still didn’t like ‘the Jewish’. In awe of the man’s suffering, knowing that he has been tortured by the self-proclaimed Jewish state, I didn’t argue further.

It made me consider the tragedy of this people, the Israeli Jews, who have driven themselves into such a dark corner. The notable exceptions – people like Amira Hass, Gideon Levy, Jeff Halper – really are exceptions; and then there are the rest, over 90%, who support Israel’s right to be an ethno-state on the ruins of the pluralistic, ancient society that was here before, and who believe regular massacres of Arabs to be necessary.

I didn’t visit the theatre in Tel Aviv or have dinner in Ashkelon, so I don’t claim to be an Israel expert; but what I saw of the Israeli Jews in east Jerusalem, and manning the checkpoints in the West Bank, was quite unlike what I’ve seen of Jews elsewhere. These people were ugly, physically speaking. The Jews are not renowned for ugliness. But these people looked like oppressors, and they looked like oppressors who know what they are.

Vanunu refuses to speak Hebrew. He lives alone, in east Jerusalem. Israeli Jewish society considers him a traitor. Only one member of his large family will speak to him. The Palestinians are friendly to him and often invite him into their homes, but he politely refuses, explaining that he can’t tell who is a collaborator and who isn’t. He knows the state is following him, and he knows there are many Palestinians who – for money or drugs or to keep the silence of a blackmailer – help the state. What he does all day, every day, is walk – “from the checkpoint to the wall, from the wall to the checkpoint.”

Suheir Hammad told me it took her several visits to Palestine before she summoned enough courage to visit her family’s town, Lydda, one of the towns ethnically cleansed in 1948. But once in Israel proper she relaxed a little. When she saw how badly Israeli Jews treat each other, it became less personal. For they too are suffering: you can’t be happy when you torture others, not really happy. Wifebeaters may look happy in the pub, but they aren’t. According to a British Pakistani friend, someone who worked at a West Bank university and spent plenty of time in Tel Aviv, the only glue holding Israeli Jews together is their hatred of the natives. His argument is repeated by Eva Figes, whose ‘Journey to Nowhere’ I’ve just read. This compulsive memoir of a German Jewish family’s forced migration to London is eloquent in its denunciation of Zionism, and also of American pro-Zionist but anti-Jewish immigration policy following World War Two. The family’s housemaid Edith, a survivor of Nazi Berlin, spends a decade in Palestine-Israel before coming to London. Why had she left? Because in Israel, “everyone hates everyone else.”

Eva Figes writes: “The New Jew looked like someone out of a Leni Riefenstahl film, handsome in a Hellenic sort of way. The New Jew struck out first, was secretly ashamed of those who had allowed themselves to be killed without a struggle, and so rejected them, even though using them for his own political ends. The ideals of the New Jew who set out to create Israel after the war were remarkably similar to his mirror image, the old Nazi. Not a good omen for the future.

Deborah Moggach and Sousan Hammad write about Palfest here.

Jeremy Harding writes about the workshop he and I ran at Bir Zeit here.

Jeremy's LRB diary piece on the wall and the web is here, and another one on cultural liberation is here.

At the end of this post there are links to four of my photo albums from Palestine.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Suheir Hammad

Suheir Hammad is one of the Palfest participants who deserves a post to herself. A Palestinian-American, Suheir was born to refugee parents in Amman. She spent her first years in civil war Beirut before moving to Brooklyn, where drugs and gang wars raged. She is a poet, prosewriter and actress. Her poetry erases any distance between the personal and political, and is humane, passionate and particular. Greatly influenced in its rhythm, diction and pacing by New York hip hop, it fits snugly into the tradition of Palestinian oral delivery exemplified by the late poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Suheir stars in the film Salt of this Sea, but it is surely time someone directed her in a poetry performance DVD. You have to hear her read to really appreciate what she does. A good place to start is the poem First Writing Since, which concerns 9/11. Here is We Spend the Fourth of July in Bed. And one for Rachel Corrie. Here is part one and part two of an al-Jazeera International interview, and here she is reading for Palfest in Ramallah. I hope the Palfest film-makers have more to come. The most powerful part of her reading in Ramallah – powerful enough to bring the audience to tears – was her series of poems for Gaza.

Jeremy Harding describes Suheir as "a younger, image-conscious, thoughtful militant for Palestine, one of a new generation who do the writing, while the Israelis oblige by extending the wall."

Ali Abunimah on Obama's Lecture

Personally, I found it unpleasant to see Obama lecturing the Arabs, and the handpicked audience clapping as ecstatically as trained apes whenever the President (rather like Napoleon in Cairo) made an Islamic allusion. No matter that he said 'hajib' intead of 'hijab'. Most depressingly, Obama’s address was heavily influenced by the Bernard Lewis school of Orientalism – Arab and Muslim anger is caused by the cultural trauma of modernity and a “self-defeating focus on the past,” rather than by very present realities, such as the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the destabilisation of Pakistan and Somalia, the unwelcome military bases in the Muslim world, and the support of dictatorial regimes such as Mubarak’s. Obama’s assumptions repeated falsities, such as the notion that Arab regimes focus on Palestine to distract the people from their own failings. In fact the Arab regimes do everything they can to take the focus off Palestine, as the Palestinian tragedy is the key symbol of the bankruptcy of the client regimes. And Obama mocked violent resistance while not saying a word about the 1400 just killed in Gaza or the million slaughtered in Iraq.

The best response I've seen to the speech is by Ali Abunimah, who studies Obama’s phrases well: “Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?” Ali goes on:

Once you strip away the mujamalat – the courtesies exchanged between guest and host – the substance of
President Obama’s speech in Cairo indicates there is likely to be little real change in US policy. It is not necessary to divine Obama’s intentions – he may be utterly sincere and I believe he is. It is his analysis and prescriptions that in most regards maintain flawed American policies intact.

Though he pledged to “speak the truth as best I can”, there was much the president left out. He spoke of tension between “America and Islam” – the former a concrete specific place, the latter a vague construct subsuming peoples, practices, histories and countries more varied than similar.

Labelling America’s “other” as a nebulous and all-encompassing “Islam” (even while professing rapprochement and respect) is a way to avoid acknowledging what does in fact unite and mobilise people across many Muslim-majority countries: overwhelming popular opposition to increasingly intrusive and violent American military, political and economic interventions in many of those countries. This opposition – and the resistance it generates – has now become for supporters of those interventions, synonymous with “Islam”.

It was disappointing that Obama recycled his predecessor’s notion that “violent extremism” exists in a vacuum, unrelated to America’s (and its proxies’) exponentially greater use of violence before and after September 11, 2001. He dwelled on the “enormous trauma” done to the US when almost 3,000 people were killed that day, but spoke not one word about the hundreds of thousands of orphans and widows left in Iraq – those whom Muntazer al-Zaidi’s flying shoe forced Americans to remember only for a few seconds last year. He ignored the dozens of civilians who die each week in the “necessary” war in Afghanistan, or the millions of refugees fleeing the US-invoked escalation in Pakistan.

As President George Bush often did, Obama affirmed that it is only a violent minority that besmirches the name of a vast and “peaceful” Muslim majority. But he seemed once again to implicate all Muslims as suspect when he warned, “The sooner the extremists are isolated and unwelcome in Muslim communities, the sooner we will all be safer.”

Nowhere were these blindspots more apparent than his statements about Palestine/Israel. He gave his audience a detailed lesson on the Holocaust and explicitly used it as a justification for the creation of Israel. “It is also undeniable,” the president said, “that the Palestinian people – Muslims and Christians – have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than sixty years they have endured the pain of dislocation.”

Suffered in pursuit of a homeland? The pain of dislocation? They already had a homeland. They suffered from being ethnically cleansed and dispossessed of it and prevented from returning on the grounds that they are from the wrong ethno-national group. Why is that still so hard to say?

He lectured Palestinians that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”. He warned them that “It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.”

Fair enough, but did Obama really imagine that such words would impress an Arab public that watched in horror as Israel slaughtered 1,400 people in Gaza last winter, including hundreds of sleeping, fleeing or terrified children, with American-supplied weapons? Did he think his listeners would not remember that the number of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians targeted and killed by Israel has always far exceeded by orders of magnitude the number of Israelis killed by Arabs precisely because of the American arms he has pledged to continue giving Israel with no accountability? Amnesty International recently confirmed what Palestinians long knew: Israel broke the negotiated ceasefire when it attacked Gaza last November 4, prompting retaliatory rockets that killed no Israelis until after Israel launched its much bigger attack on Gaza. That he continues to remain silent about what happened in Gaza, and refuses to hold Israel accountable demonstrates anything but a commitment to full truth-telling.

Some people are prepared to give Obama a pass for all this because he is at last talking tough on Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. In Cairo, he said: “The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements. This construction violates previous agreements and undermines efforts to achieve peace. It is time for these settlements to stop.”
These carefully chosen words focus only on continued construction, not on the existence of the settlements themselves; they are entirely compatible with the peace process industry consensus that existing settlements will remain where they are for ever. This raises the question of where Obama thinks he is going. He summarised Palestinians’ “legitimate aspirations” as being the establishment of a “state”. This has become a convenient slogan to that is supposed to replace for Palestinians their pursuit of rights and justice that the proposed state actually denies. Obama is already on record opposing Palestinian refugees’ right to return home, and has never supported the right of Palestinian citizens of Israel to live free from racist and religious incitement, persecution and practices fanned by Israel’s highest office holders and written into its laws.

He may have more determination than his predecessor but he remains committed to an unworkable two-state “vision” aimed not at restoring Palestinian rights, but preserving Israel as an enclave of Israeli Jewish privilege. It is a dead end.

There was one sentence in his speech I cheered for and which he should heed: “Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.”

• Ali Abunimah is co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of One Country, A Bold Proposal to end the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse.

Editor’s note, 5 June 2009: This article originally included a sentence saying “the last suicide attack targeting civilians by a Palestinian occurred in 2004″. This was incorrect and Ali Abunimah posted a clarification here in the discussion thread.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Visit Palestine

I have just returned from a physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting week in Palestine. I was a participant in Palfest 09, the second Palestine Festival of Literature. It was a great honour to be in the company of writers like Michael Palin and Debborah Moggach, and Claire Messud, MG Vassanji, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Ahdaf Soueif and Jamal Mahjoub, the lawyer for Guantanamo Bay prisoners Ahmad Ghappour, Palestinian poets Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handal, and all the others. I’ll do a post at some point on everybody there. It was an even greater honour to meet Palestinian academics, students, and people on the streets and in the camps, to witness their incredible resilience and creative intelligence. Something fearless in them slipped into me, and gave me optimism. A people like this can not be kept down indefinitely.

They will stand up, even if I can’t tell how they possibly can. What I saw in Palestine confirmed me in my belief that a two-state solution is impossible, but also made me very pessimistic about the only real solution, the one-state solution – such is the level of Zionist hatred and arrogance, so deeply entrenched is Zionist settlement on the landscape and Zionist assumptions in the minds of Israeli Jews.

There was inspiration and conversation. There were great meals. At one I harangued Mahmoud Abbas’s chief of staff (Rafik Husseini took it like the gentleman he clearly is), and at another I was talking to the heroic Mordechai Vanunu. There was a walk in the beautiful, Zionist-vandalised hills outside Ramallah, in a thin gap of olive trees between the thick scars of occupation. There was even dancing. But there was weeping too. For me, two afternoons of weeping, in the Aida camp in Bethlehem and in the old city of Hebron/ al-Khalil. And I’m not such a weepy person. I will write about all of this in the coming weeks.

What I can tell you in brief is that the tragedy is much worse than we imagine. I didn’t learn anything new in terms of the facts. I’d already seen videos of the brutal settlers of Hebron. I knew already that most Palestinian children need psychological treatment because their homes are fired on from snipers in the panopticon towers which shadow villages and camp alleyways, because they’ve had their front doors kicked in at night and seen their fathers beaten and dragged away. But to see it with your own eyes, to experience the humiliation of the checkpoints and the walls yourself, to be held for five hours at the border, to breathe the air of oppression – this is very different from what my happy imagination could produce.

I’ve been fascinated by Palestine for 25 years. My aunt’s house in Beirut was destroyed by Zionist planes. I have a Palestinian brother-in-law, and I don’t know how many wonderful Palestinian friends. I’ve read books and articles, I’ve listened to music, I’ve watched films, I’ve written about it. But this was my first visit. I always said I wouldn’t go unless I had a real reason to go, unless I would be doing some good. Plus as a Syrian (although my only passport is British) I’m not allowed to go. Yet I think I was wrong to wait so long. The Palestinians need our solidarity, and we need to see what is being done on the eastern Mediterranean with the support of our media, governments and money. Therefore I would advise everybody to visit Palestine. Not only because it is worthy to do so, but also because visiting Palestine is a fascinating, inspiring, unforgettable experience.

There are organisations which can arrange tours of West Bank towns and meetings with Palestinian NGOs, teachers, and ordinary people. Organisations suggested to me by American Christians in Hebron include Jeff Halper’s Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, the Friends of Sabeel, and the Christian Peacemaker Teams. I’m sure there are many more.

The first and last nights of the Festival were supposed to have happened at the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem, but on both occasions heavily armed Israelis closed the theatre and forced people out. Here’s the Guardian report on the the first night, and here’s Karl Sabbagh’s letter to the Guardian:

I was at the opening of the Palestine literary festival in Jerusalem on Saturday night, when heavily armed police pushed their way into the midst of talks by Michael Palin, Deborah Moggach, and Henning Mankell, along with many of their readers from Palestine, Israel and elsewhere. The police had come to close the festival down, and in another PR debacle of the type for which Israel is becoming famous, their clumsy actions drew far more attention to Israel's oppression of the Palestinians than if they'd allowed the event to continue.

The sight of the expelled participants and audience as we filed down East Jerusalem's main street, some people carrying dishes of canapes, to the new and hastily organised venue at the French Cultural Institute might have seemed merely odd or amusing. In fact, it was a vivid reminder of Israel's fear of anything which might suggest that Palestinians are as cultured, civilised and deserving of respect as their Israeli neighbours.

Karl Sabbagh.

Much more to come.

Click here to see my photo album of people.

Click here to see my photo album of walls.

Click here to see my photo album of al-Khalil/ Hebron.

Click here to see my photo album of Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Please read the captions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Muslim Writer

Something for the Muslim Writers Awards:

Am I a Muslim writer? American Jews and Russian Christians are what I read when I write. I like Syrian poets and Egyptian novelists too, but it would be difficult to argue that Nizar Qabbani is more ‘Muslim’ than he is ‘Arab’ or ‘Modernist’.

Is Islam a defining part of my personality? To be honest, it depends on the year. And what determines Muslim belonging anyway? Geography? Ideology? Linguistics? Surely not skin colour. Should Muslim writing be halal, and avoid beer and heresy? Should it intend to prevent vice and promote virtue? – if so, late Tolstoy was a Muslim writer.

It happens that my novel discusses tawheed, and that its most balanced character is a prayerful Muslim who wears hijab. I used the ideas and characters I found before me. But if I set my next novel amongst anarchist philosophers in the Ukraine, will I still be doing Muslim writing? It’s problematic, certainly.

I suppose if you can have Black writing and Gay writing and London writing you can have Muslim writing too. The label, like any other, is limiting if it’s used as a box, but liberating if we use it as a springboard. The point is, that as Muslims in Britain, many fictions are being written about us. Many are presented as fact. The Muslim label already looms large in the cultural imagination, and is skilfully brought into play by everyone from Martin Amis to Madonna. So we should write back. We – and I mean nothing more definite by ‘we’ than those who share a few key Islamic references, who don’t see Islam as foreign – have a million tales to tell. In Britain we are immigrants and natives, black and white and brown, rich and poor, taraweeh-praying and whisky-swilling, and mixtures of the above. For us to be heard in our variety is important, because heard voices empower. Voices heard through novels also work against ignorance, because novels, unlike the BBC, humanise. They deal in characters instead of abstractions, and raise questions, and so provide the human texture which the most well-intentioned news media cannot.

As Muslims in a non-Muslim or even Islamophobic society, I think we have something especially strong to contribute. We possess not only a fresh stock of stories and a range of new cultural forms, but also the enriched perspective and impatience with assumption that otherness and in-betweenness give you. To see all lands as foreign, through the eyes of a musafir – there is something in this which Islam and novel-writing share.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Syria's Tolstoy

A book review for the Guardian:

Syria, more than most, is a land of stories and storytellers. The farmers and shopkeepers describe early Islamic battles or episodes from the Crusades as if they’d attended in person. A gathering of friends is quickly elevated into group performance of jokes, laments, myths, and conspiracies. Even the Syrians’ surnames suggest stories: there are families called The-Milk’s-Boiled, Sip-The-Yoghurt, and Undone-Belt. “The deeper you swim into our stories,” a village rhetorician once told me, “the more you understand that they have no floor.”

Yet Syria is better known for its poets, and its TV dramas, than for its novelists. Egypt, with its unending metropolis, is the home of the Arabic novel, and Egypt produced the Arabs’ master of fiction, Naguib Mahfouz. But a flame equally bright now burns from Damascus, via Germany. Here is the Great Syrian Novel, and its author Rafik Schami.

In “The Dark Side of Love” Schami exploits all the resources of the classic realist novel and then goes a little further, forging a new form out of Syrian orality. His basic unit is not chapter or paragraph, but story; a thousand bejewelled anecdotes and tales are buried here, ready to spring, but each is sculpted with such dazzling surety into the whole that reading the book is always compulsive. In its final, self-exposing passage, Schami compares his method to mosaic work, in which every shiny object is a beauty of itself, yet which in combination, at a distance, reveal a still greater beauty. The novel is even Tolstoyan in its marrying of the personal, social and political spheres, of private with national life.

It starts with an unsolved murder. “Knowledge is a lock,” says a policeman, “and the key to it is a question, but we’re not allowed to ask questions in this country…which is why there isn’t a single good crime novel in Syria. Crime novels feed on questions.”

Commissioner Barudi dares to ask. The answer is an epic of violent enmity between families, and between clashing ideas of love. The first idea is easily stated: “Love in Arabia depends more on what your identity card says than the feelings of your heart.”

‘Identity card’ means religion and sect and, more fundamentally, the all-powerful clan – that haven of solidarity and comfort which “saved the Arabs from the desert, and at the same time enslaved them.” In the mountain village of Mala, the Catholic Mushtaks and the Orthodox Shahins feud and kill for honour and revenge. In nearby Damascus, Farid Mushtak and Rana Shahin prefer the approach of Syria’s greatest Sufi saint, Ibn Arabi, who cried, “Love is my religion!” Like Romeo and Juliette, or Majnun and Laila, Farid and Rana’s romance shines secretly, ill-fatedly. It is a compelling and complete love story.

Schami’s Mala is on a par with Marquez’s Macondo for colour and resonance, although nothing more magical than real life happens here – only seductions and insanities, a visit by a dangerously drunk president, a peasant uprising, a bandit siege.

Damascus, “a lost luggage office” refined and trampled by 40 civilisations over 8,000 years, is experienced through its cafes, hammams and family homes, its puppet shows, Eid festivals, and hunger riots, via the underground press, a boxing match, and a brothel. The canvas is vast and closely painted. It feels encyclopedic, in psychological observation as well as social breadth.

There are no faux-magical pyrotechnics in the telling, but richly detailed characters working through real situations, characters whose inherited wounds the reader comes to care deeply about. Each is vividly drawn, with quiet and acute intelligence. The patriarch George Mushtak is an elemental force. So too is his philandering, repenting son, Elias. Farid, who we know best of all, grows by enduring a tyrannous father, Israeli bombs, and a ‘political’ prison camp.

“The Dark Side of Love” is a fiction which accurately (if selectively) documents Syrian social history. Its sweep reaches from 1907 to 1970, through the French occupation, the chaotic coup years, the rise of the Ba’ath, and the disastrous June war. Farid and Rana swim on the great currents of 20th Century Syrian thought – Communism, feminism, nationalism, Islamism – and witness the poisoning of the waters. Farid’s torture scenes are painfully, brilliantly narrated. Relations between Christians, Jews and Muslims, between the countryside and the city, between men and women, and between political factions, are explored with subtlety and honesty.

It is translated very well from the German, although annoying Germanic orthography remains – so that Yusuf is written ‘Jusuf’ and the Damascus quarter Muhajireen becomes ‘Muhayirin’. And perhaps a glossary of dictators’ names would have been useful. Schami disguises the actual characters with names whose comic impact will be lost on those who don’t speak Arabic. Abdul Nasser, for instance, is called Satlan, which means ‘stoned’.

The weakest part of the book is its title. “The Dark Side of Love” illumines almost every side of love, as well as fear, longing, cruelty and lust. Darkness and light alternate like the basalt and marble stripes on Damascene walls, and the novel’s structure is as strong. A book like this requires a less limiting title. I suggest something as expansive, as comprehensive, as ‘War and Peace’.